Karisoke™ Research Center History

Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke™ Research Center on Sept. 24, 1967, in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park between Mt. Karisimbi and Mt. Visoke. She recalled this historic event in her book, Gorillas in the Mist: “Little did I know then, that by setting up two small tents in the wilderness of the Virungas I had launched the beginnings of what was to become an internationally renowned research station eventually to be utilized by students and scientists from many countries.” 

Rwanda's Virunga mountainsAt that time, she feared that the mountain gorilla might become extinct by the end of the 20th century, as her mentor, Dr. Louis Leakey, had warned. A census published in 1981 found that the population had fallen to 242 individuals, from a 1960 estimate of 400-500. Now, so many years later, Fossey might be surprised to learn that some 480 mountain gorillas are known to inhabit the Virunga mountains (according to a 2010 census), a significant increase since her time. She might be even more surprised to learn that Karisoke™ not only survived her own murder in 1985 as well as years of civil strife, but also that it has expanded tremendously over the past few decades. From humble beginnings, Karisoke™ has become a world-class scientific and conservation institution, providing daily protection and heading long-term studies of the mountain gorillas. In addition, Karisoke™ provides the human communities in the area with education and health programs. 

The story of Karisoke™ is one of enormous perseverance, courage and vision, on the part of hundreds of international and Rwandan staff and researchers, and supporters from all over the world, as well as Fossey herself.

Dian Fossey and Karisoke™

Dian Fossey’s original focus was on the study of mountain gorillas. She pioneered gorilla habituation, identification, tracking, range mapping, and other primate research techniques in use today. However, she soon realized that if the gorillas were to survive, they would require protection as well. Among the threats were poachers who set snares in the forest, cattle grazing, and human encroachment into the forest. She initiated “active conservation” practices in the form of armed anti-poaching patrols. After one of her favorite gorillas — Digit — was killed by poachers, Fossey established the “Digit Fund,” to support active conservation of the gorillas. After her death, the Digit Fund was renamed the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (Fossey Fund), which continues to operate Karisoke™ today.

  • After living in tents for a year and a half, Fossey allowed some European friends from nearby towns to build a small one-room cabin for her. Over the next 10 years eight other cabins were constructed at Karisoke™.
  • Mountain gorilla census work by Fossey and visiting scientists showed a population decline until the mid-1980s, when it began to increase.
  • By early 1978, Fossey organized weekly anti-poaching patrols to protect the gorillas.
  • Fossey invited Dr. Louis Leakey to send students to assist her in 1969, initiating Karisoke’s long history of providing students from all over the world with field experience and research opportunities.
  • Fossey and students made important discoveries about gorilla ecology, behavior and more.
  • In 1968, National Geographic photographer Bob Campbell came to Karisoke™ while Fossey visited the United States. He returned in 1969 to cover her work. For a period of nearly three years, he also helped her monitor the gorillas, train staff assistants and build and maintain the facilities. During this time, he shot thousands of photographs and several miles of film.
  • Poachers killed the silverback Digit, removing his head and hands, on Dec. 31, 1977. Walter Cronkite announced the death on the “CBS Evening News.”
  • Fossey published Gorillas in the Mist in 1983. It became an international best seller.
  • A film based on Fossey’s book, starring Sigourney Weaver, was a popular success (1988). Sigourney Weaver became honorary chair of the Digit Fund (later the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International), a position she still holds.

Karisoke™ in the 1990s: More challenges

The 1990s were a particularly challenging period for Karisoke™ as civil war, genocide and more civil war devastated Rwanda and forced the staff to evacuate numerous times. The buildings were looted and destroyed. Most Karisoke™ trackers lost their homes and possessions in the war and some saw family members murdered. Some were imprisoned when they returned home. “They have endured beyond what we can imagine,” wrote Dr. Dieter Steklis, Karisoke’s director in the early ’90s.

Tracking gorillas today from KarisokeBy 1998 Karisoke’s expatriate staff had evacuated five times. The facility was destroyed three times, rebuilt twice, and eventually relocated to Musanze (formerly Ruhengeri). Despite the constant threat of war, Karisoke™ continued to upgrade its capacity for scientific research through new technology and new partnerships with local authorities and other conservation organizations. Somehow, the gorillas survived the war years in good condition, despite the greatly increased number of snares set by poachers.

  • Karisoke’s Rwandan staff continued to track and observe the gorillas throughout eight years of war, with only one 15-month interruption. In 1993, Karisoke’s records were taken by the Rwandan Patriotic Front and returned intact at a safer time.
  • During the 1994 evacuation, Interim Karisoke Director Pascale Sicotte worked with local conservation partners in Congo to secure the safety of Karisoke staff and families.
  • Seven Karisoke staff lost their lives during the war and many more lost family members.
  • During a brief period of peace in 1993, Karisoke™ purchased global positioning equipment to track gorilla group movements and create maps. Staff were trained to use the equipment and collect data.
  • The Fossey Fund began supporting education for all children of Karisoke employees, purchasing uniforms, paying school fees and rebuilding schools and dispensaries.
  • With the help of Volcanoes National Park, detailed plans were drawn up to increase community awareness of the importance of the Virungas' ecosystem.
  • In the 1990s, Karisoke began health programs to improve the quality of life for communities surrounding the park and reduce transmission of disease from people to gorillas.
  • In 1999 Karisoke™ began to use hyperspectral remote sensing imagery to map Rwanda’s gorilla habitat.

A new century of progress at Karisoke™

As Rwanda recovered from war, Karisoke™ built new facilities, welcomed a new director, Dr. Katie Fawcett, and continued to create new research and community partnerships.

  • A conference hosted by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology resulted in the publication of Mountain Gorillas: 30 Years of Research at Karisoke (Cambridge U. Press, 2001), including chapters by Fossey Fund staff.
  • Celebrating the mountain gorilla “centennial” in 2002 (the 100th year since scientific identification of the subspecies Gorilla beringei beringei), the Fossey Fund presented a conservation award to the people of Rwanda, accepted by President Paul Kagame.
  • At the request of Rwandan park officials, Karisoke™ began to habituate golden monkeys for tourism and to study this unique species.
  • A 2003 census found 380 mountain gorillas in the Virungas. This was the first census conducted entirely by local conservation personnel from three countries (Rwanda, Uganda, Congo). A second collaborative census in 2010 found that the mountain gorillas of the Virungas had again increased significantly, to 480.
  • Karisoke’s education program began working with National University of Rwanda students by supporting final-year students in their dissertation studies and providing field courses for second- and fourth-year biology students. Also, students from the Kigali Institute for Education and the Institute of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry began attending gorilla conservation field courses at Karisoke™.
  • In 2002, Karisoke™ started collaboration with Rwandan park authorities and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project to care for confiscated gorillas.
  • The Fossey Fund’s Ecosystem Health program began treating people in villages near the park for parasites in 2004, and began a Clean Water/Sanitation project to prevent parasite infection, in conjunction with Rwanda's Ministry of Health.
  • The Fossey Fund began to support the Bisate Primary School, which is attended by children of Karisoke™ staff, providing materials, scholarships, support for teachers, and a new classroom building.
  • Karisoke staff began regular conservation education at several primary and secondary schools near the park, including support for school-based environmental clubs and a Citizen Science program that teaches students to design and conduct their own field research, as well as conservation education for adults in the communities through a variety of media.
  • The book 21st Century Conservation: Gorillas as a Case Study appeared in 2007, edited by Fossey Fund scientist Dr. Tara Stoinski, former Karisoke™ Director Dr. Dieter Steklis, and former Fossey Fund Vice President Dr. Patrick Mehlman.
  • In 2012 Felix Ndagijimana became the first Rwandan director of the Karisoke Research Center.
  • Karisoke moved its headquarters in 2012 to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund's new Regional Resource Center, a modern, multi-purpose facility in Musanze.

Continue reading about Karisoke™ today.

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